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Feinstein water bill could help with California's drought—if House GOP gives it a chance

As an attempt to balance many competing interests, the water bill that California Democrat Dianne Feinstein introduced in the Senate last week appears well-thought-through and carefully crafted — and as such it is being greeted by many with the kind of lukewarm response that such attempts often receive. Few seem ready to embrace it without reservation, precisely because it offers a compromise. If it were the product of negotiations among environmental stewards, agribusiness and urban water agencies, it would leave each interest plenty to continue fighting over, yet still infuse the state with the crucial federal investment it needs to update its infrastructure to allow better capture, storage, treatment and reuse of water.

The problem is that it is not the end-point of negotiations but the beginning. Agricultural interests and their supporters in the House, including a core of Central Valley Republicans, see it as only a counter-offer in a continuing battle that they expect will result in more sweeping diversions of the state's water to farms, fields and ranches, at the expense of the fragile Delta and coastal ecosystems, California's struggling fishing industry — and U.S. taxpayers. Their opening offer was and remains a House bill that is based on the notion that the rainwater and snowmelt that for thousands of years have sustained the salmon runs that feed ocean life, and in more recent times have created jobs and boosted the state's economy, are somehow wasted whenever they flow to the sea. In diverting more and more water from the delta they would not simply be driving species toward extinction — in violation of federal law and any semblance of moral stewardship of the planet — but would be furthering the collapse of the very hydrologic system that supplies the fresh water that makes aqueducts worth the investment, keeps crops growing and keeps cities thriving.

Environmental advocates argue that even the Feinstein bill pushes too far in that direction by seeking to maximize pumping from the Delta to the federal Central Valley Project that irrigates farm fields and orchards, and to the State Water Project that serves both agricultural and urban areas, including Los Angeles. That provision is directly contrary, they assert, to a landmark 2009 state law — itself built on a hard-fought compromise — to manage the Delta to further the two “co-equal goals” of protecting the ecosystem and providing a more reliable water supply. How is it possible, they ask, to keep those two goals in balance while at the same time maximizing the water available for human use?

Feinstein's aides say that under her bill existing laws would be respected, and the delta would continue to operate pursuant to the opinions issued by biologists about how much water must keep flowing, undiverted by pumping, in order to protect salmon and other species, such as the delta smelt. Unlike earlier drafts that actually mandated sustained levels of pumping, the bill would instead require water officials to justify any decision to reduce pumping by showing the data on which they relied.

Between the lines of this bill and earlier drafts it is easy to read frustration, on the part of farmers, water agencies and Feinstein herself, with the current decision-making process on how best to abide by environmental laws and court orders to protect fish species. Environmentalists argue that science and scientists should be allowed to do their work unimpeded by politics. Fine, water agencies say, but those scientists can be a little more aggressive about keeping up with constantly changing conditions in the water so pumping can be maximized whenever it won't cause fish any actual harm.

Much of the fight comes down to details only water lawyers could love, and raises the prospect of lawsuits seeking to interpret Feinstein's language in favor of either fish or farms. And that's a shame, because the bill also presents the prospect of badly needed investment in habitat restoration and species protection, as well as recycling projects that would go a long way toward taking pressure off the delta to supply urban areas like Los Angeles. Proposals that are stuck in Congress today would no longer need individual authorization. More than 100 recycling and desalination projects could be funded and move forward.

Even now, as El Niño precipitation (although so far underwhelming in Southern California) refills Northern California's reservoirs, the state must look ahead to a future with a diminished Sierra snowcap, less water available for import to Los Angeles and neighboring urban areas, an urgent need for recycling and an even more urgent need to keep as much water as possible available for the species that are nearing extinction. Feinstein's bill might be considered a constructive step in that direction — were it not for the fact that House Republicans are seeing it as a step the other way.  

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